COLUMN: Building Strong Relationships Is Secret To Solution Provider Success

BlackHawk Data CEO Maryann Pagano’s channel network is helping her build a $100 million business.

Closing in on 50 years of age and nearly 20 years into her channel career, Maryann Pagano found herself in an unenviable position.

It was 2018, and Pagano, who today is the co-founder and CEO of New York-based solution provider BlackHawk Data, had just completed an acrimonious split from her solution provider employer of the past 10 years.

She had no job and no real plan on what to do next beyond knowing that she wanted to try to grow a new solution provider business of her own, one built on the premise that high-touch customer service was the primary path to success.

But Pagano did have two things going for her: a business partner that believed in her—BlackHawk President and CTO Jason Caparoso—and a strong network of channel connections who had come to value and trust her as someone who knew how to take care of customers.

As Pagano and Caparoso started their new company with little more than themselves and two cellphones, it became immediately apparent that all of the work Pagano had done throughout her career to build strong relationships would now be the key to BlackHawk’s success.

“The channel paid it forward when I needed it to,” Pagano said as she shared her story on stage at last month’s Women of the Channel Leadership Summit West conference.

It was Pagano’s first big sale, a $5.5 million deal for the new Terminal A being built at the Newark Liberty International Airport, that really tapped into the power of her channel network.

After closing that deal, she called an old friend at TD Synnex with a big ask: “Can I have a $5.5 million credit line?” The answer came back, “Sure.”

In an interview after her session, Pagano shared more about how important her channel network was in helping BlackHawk thrive. She recalled one security vendor that allowed the fledgling company to claim Gold partner status a bit ahead of earning it. She remembers free training provided to her employees by many other vendors.

“For me, that was everything. The channel was everything for me,” Pagano said in the interview. “If it wasn’t for them, my network in the channel and the friends that I built in the last 25 years of being in the channel and being able to use that, I don’t know what I would have done.”

What was it about Pagano that made her channel network want to step up and help her build a new business when she left her old job in inside sales to become a CEO? Her mission to treat every customer, every interaction, with the utmost care and attention to detail. Her vendor partners knew they and their joint customers “were in good hands.”

“I made sure that their customers were taken care of, they were attended to,” Pagano said. “I always paid really close attention to the manufacturer reps to make sure they knew they were in good hands when they had things that needed to be done and their customers were taken care of, so there’s a lot of trust built.”

She also remembers the jarring impact of the global pandemic, which hit just after BlackHawk had rented office space in Manhattan while the company still had a small client base.

Solution providers like ePlus, CDW and SHI shared work with BlackHawk when the larger companies had more than they could handle, she said.

Now BlackHawk is thriving, employing just shy of 50 people and on track to pass $100 million in revenue this year. The accolades have piled up, both for BlackHawk and for Pagano herself.

The company cracked the CRN Solution Provider 500 list for the first time in 2022 at No. 492, rising to No. 309 on this year’s list. It has also been honored on the 2023 CRN Fast Growth 150, ranking No. 14 with over 236 percent growth. Pagano, meanwhile, was named to the 2024 Power 100 Solution Provider list as part of CRN’s Women of the Channel project.

In five years, Pagano wants BlackHawk to be a $1 billion company, an audacious goal to be sure. “If I’m not going to shoot for the stars, nobody will,” she said.

And she knows she won’t get there without her channel network. “Build a circle around you of people who are strong,” Pagano advises. “One day you may need them, and they’ll come running.”